Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo. (Reuters/File)
Updated 22 September 2019

Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

  • In an exclusive interview with Arab News, the vice president talks about her frosty relationship with Duterte and the need to ensure OFW rights

MANILA: She is one of his most vocal critics, while he never misses an opportunity to mock her in public speeches across the Philippines.

But when it comes to upholding the sanctity of their office, both President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo ensure they bring a finely scripted civility to the table.

“I do not meet him often. I do not get invited to functions in the presidential palace, but I get invited to military events. I try as much as I can to attend ... and I see the president there. Our meetings have always been cordial. The president has been very civil when we see each other,” Robredo said in an exclusive interview with Arab News in Manila.

Robredo was elected separately to Duterte and was not his running mate. Amid rumors that she is the obvious choice to take on the mantle once Duterte finishes his term, Robredo says that she is not ready to rule out the idea just yet.

“I do not rule it out completely only because of what happened during the last two elections where I ruled out running for Congress and I ruled out running for the vice-presidency, and I had to eat my words after that,” she said, adding that as far as the Philippines is concerned, it’s all about “destiny.”

“Our history has shown that a lot of people have aspired for the presidency, but have not been successful. And we have had a lot of presidents who won the elections where they had not prepared as much as the other candidates. It is something that will be given to you if it is really meant for you. So there is no point in preparing for it at this point,” she said.

 

In recent years, Robredo and Duterte have had a frosty relationship over issues ranging from the government’s controversial war on drugs to the Philippines ties with China.

 

Recently, Robredo called out Duterte for his “shoot, but don’t kill” orders.

The president made his comments on Thursday during the inauguration of the Bataan government center and business hub dubbed “The Bunker,” urging Filipinos to “shoot but not kill” public officials who were demanding money in exchange for their services and vowing to defend any person who attacked a corrupt official.

The statement drew flak from several rights organizations and, most significantly, from the vice president herself.

“I do not agree with killings per se, whether they are against drug addicts or corrupt officials. We have laws; we have the judicial system, and we should make sure that we have a strong judicial system, safe from political intrusion and corruption,” she said.

Robredo also explained why she has been at loggerheads with Duterte over his stance on the South China Sea.

Last week, she described as “reckless” his suggestion that he would consider bypassing an arbitration ruling — in favor of the Philippines — over a territorial dispute with China in order to finalize an energy pact with Beijing.

“I have always been vocal about statements by the president, which may be interpreted in a manner that would be against the constitution. It has been the reason of some friction between us. There has been a lot of confusion as far as the seriousness of the president’s remarks is concerned. Whenever he makes controversial statements, some officials around him try to correct those statements,” she said, adding that her retorts have “been a source of criticism from many of the president’s supporters.”

Adding to their constant tug-of-war is the issue of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and sending manpower to countries in the Middle East.

The issue intensified with the murder of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait last year. A Syrian woman, one of Demafelis’ employers, was found guilty of her murder this month.

Following the incident, the Philippines placed a ban on sending workers to Kuwait.

Duterte lifted the ban after Demafelis’ killer was tried, and there have been efforts to negotiate the terms and conditions of labor contracts by both the countries.

“The issues in Kuwait became a little too unbearable and we entered into a memorandum of agreement last year ... it was a reaction to many of the complaints that overseas Filipinos in Kuwait have. Some say that their passports are being confiscated by employers as soon as they reach Kuwait, and there are complaints about the working conditions, hours, etc,” Robredo said.

However, the agreement was a “short-term” initiative and a more formal bilateral agreement would have been “better in the sense that both countries will be made accountable,” she said.

“This is our desire not just in Kuwait, but also in many other parts of the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia for example, where most of our Filipino workers are. There has been a UN convention on the protection of the rights of overseas workers — migrant workers — but, unfortunately, most of the countries hosting our migrant workers are not signatories to that convention yet,” she said.

Robredo described the agreement a “work in progress,” saying “it is something that we have been working on for several years.”

The Philippines signed two agreements with Saudi Arabia — the first in 2015, and another two years later —  on labor contracts and recruitment.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the Kingdom continued to be the top destination for OFWs until May this year, with an estimated 2.3 million Filipinos working there.

Remittances from the period totalled P235.9 billion ($4.5 billion), up from P205.2 billion a year earlier.

“It is our desire that the countries hosting our migrant workers will be signatories to the UN convention because at the very least, the basic rights of our workers will be protected. It is something that not just our Foreign Affairs Department is working on, but our Labor Department as well,” she said, adding that this and a few other issues are subjects on which she and the president agree.

In June this year, when both Robredo and Duterte entered the final stretch of their six-year terms, the vice president said that she wanted a “better working relationship” with the president.

It is a sentiment that she voiced strongly while talking to Arab News as well.

“I think if our meetings are to be the gauge of our relationship, we are OK. It is just that there have been a lot of side remarks, issues and criticisms outside of our meetings that I think complicates the relationship,” she said.


Migrant parents separated from kids since 2018 return to US

Updated 23 January 2020

Migrant parents separated from kids since 2018 return to US

LOS ANGELES: Nine parents who were deported as the Trump administration separated thousands of migrant families landed back into the US late Wednesday to reunite with children they had not seen in a year and a half.
The group arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Guatemala City in a trip arranged under the order of a federal judge who found the US government had unlawfully prevented them from seeking asylum. An asylum advocate confirmed the nine parents were all aboard the flight.
Some of the children were at the airport to greet them, including David Xol’s 9-year-old son Byron.
David fell to one knee and tearfully embraced Byron for about three minutes, patting the back of his son’s head.
“He was small,” David said after rising to his feet. He looked at his attorney — who accompanied him on the flight — raised his hand about chest-high and said, “He grew a lot.”
David, Byron and his attorney, Ricardo de Anda, then embraced in a three-way hug and exchanged words in their huddle. Byron was all smiles. Father, son, attorney and family sponsor eagerly left the airport for their hotel.
The reunion was a powerful reminder of the lasting effects of Trump’s separation policy, even as attention and outrage has faded amid impeachment proceedings and tensions with Iran. But it also underscored that hundreds, potentially thousands, of other parents and children are still apart nearly two years after the zero-tolerance policy on unauthorized border crossings took effect.
“They all kind of hit the lottery,” said Linda Grimm, an attorney who represents one of the parents returning to the US “There are so many people out there who have been traumatized by the family separation policy whose pain is not going to be redressed.”
More than 4,000 children are known to have been separated from their parents before and during the official start of zero tolerance in spring 2018. Under the policy, border agents charged parents en masse with illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, then placed their children in government facilities, including some “tender-age shelters” set up for infants.
The US has acknowledged that agents separated families long before they enforced zero tolerance across the entire southern border, its agencies did not properly record separations, and some detention centers were overcrowded and undersupplied, with families denied food, water or medical care.
In June 2018, US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to stop separating families and reunite parents and children.
At least 470 parents were deported without their children. Some of the kids were held in US government facilities and ultimately placed with sponsors. Others were deported to their home countries.
Accounts emerged of many parents being told to sign paperwork they couldn’t read or understand or being denied a chance to request asylum in ways that violated federal law.
The US Department of Homeland Security referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, which did not respond.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original family separation lawsuit before Sabraw, asked the judge to order the return of a small group of parents whose children remained in the US In September, Sabraw required the US to allow 11 parents to come back and denied relief to seven others.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said Sabraw made clear he would only order the return of people “who were misled or coerced into giving up their asylum rights.” That will leave other parents who fled violence, poverty and persecution to decide whether to have their children return to their home countries or remain in the US without them.
“Many are going to make the decision that generations of immigrant parents have made — to leave their child in the US and endure the hardship of separation, but to do it for their child’s own safety,” Gelernt said.
Xol said that after he and his then-7-year-old son, Byron, crossed the border, they were taken to a US Border Patrol processing center in South Texas. Xol was charged with illegal entry on May 19, 2018.
Two days later, Xol said an officer told him to sign a document that would allow him and Byron to be deported together. If he didn’t sign, Byron would be given up for adoption and Xol would be detained for at least two years.
Xol signed the document, only to have Byron taken away and then get deported to Guatemala. Byron was placed in government facilities for 11 months.
The family’s attorney, Ricardo de Anda, persuaded a federal court to force the US to let a Texas family take in Byron. Since May 2019, Byron has lived with Holly and Matthew Sewell and their two children, with regular video calls to his family.
Holly Sewell brought Byron, now 9, to meet his father at the airport. They planned to go back to Texas to pack and prepare for Byron to move in with his father once Xol is settled in California. Before the reunion, Byron kept asking Sewell, his caretaker, when his father would clear immigration authorities.
“They’re almost here, you’re doing great,” she said. “Count to 1,000.”
“999,” Byron responded.
She said she was thrilled Byron could see his dad again but sharply criticized the US government’s treatment of asylum-seekers.
Esvin Fernando Arredondo was expected to be on the plane. The father from Guatemala was separated from one of his daughters, Andrea Arredondo — then 12 years old and now 13, after they turned themselves in on May 16, 2018, at a Texas crossing and sought asylum legally, according to Grimm, his lawyer. He failed an initial screening and agreed to go back to Guatemala.
According to Sabraw’s ruling, the government deported Arredondo even after the judge had ordered families reunited and subsequently prohibited US officials from removing any parent separated from their child. He’s now being given a second chance at asylum under the court order.
Andrea was separated from all family for about a month, living in a shelter as the government struggled to connect children with their parents because they lacked adequate tracking systems. She was finally reunited with her mother, who had turned herself in at the Texas crossing with the other two daughters four days earlier than her husband, on May 12, 2018.
She and her two daughters passed the initial screening interview for asylum, unlike her husband, even though they were fleeing for the same reason. Their son Marco, 17, was shot and killed by suspected gang members in Guatemala City.
Arredondo’s wife, Cleivi Jerez, 41, arrived at LAX less than an hour before the flight landed with their three daughters in tow, ages 17, 13 and 7.
“Lots of nerves, last night I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish in an interview after the flight landed.
Jerez said she planned to stay up late catching up with her husband. She planned to rest at their Los Angeles home tomorrow as well, catching up on their 17 months apart before he has to report to an ICE office Friday in San Diego. Alison Arredondo, 7, said she missed going to the park with her father and she wanted to go to one with him in LA.
While the US has stopped the large-scale separations, it has implemented policies to prevent many asylum-seekers from entering the country. Under its “Remain in Mexico” policy, more than 50,000 people have been told to wait there for weeks or months for US court dates. The Trump administration also is ramping up deportations of Central Americans to other countries in the region to seek asylum there.
“People want to make this a heartwarming story, but it’s not. It’s devastating,” Sewell said. “There is just no good reason why we had to do this to this child and this family. And he symbolizes thousands of others who have been put in this exact same position.”